Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.
Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.
In this week’s Torah reading, we read of the high priest and his vestments, included in which are the tzitz, the golden head plate on which God’s name is written, and the choshen, the breastplate containing the names of the 12 tribes. These two items, which as the Torah specifies are worn on the head and the heart, symbolize the devotion to God accomplished both through one’s intellect and one’s emotions. In this respect, the high priest’s garments parallel the tefillin shel rosh, worn on the head, and tefillin shel yad, worn on the arm opposite one’s heart, which likewise correspond to the intellectual and emotional aspects of our relationship with God.
We find another parallel between the tefillin and the tzitz in the Talmud, which derives the prohibition of neglecting to remain constantly focused on tefillin from the tzitz-for if the tzitz, which contains only one mention of God’s name, nevertheless requires constant focus, certainly tefillin, which contain many more mentions of God’s name, require this special level of attention. Maimonides codified this law as follows: “One is obligated to constantly touch his tefillin, as long as he is wearing them, so that he does not lose his focus on them for even one moment – for their sanctity is greater than the sanctity of the tzitz, because whereas the tzitz contains only one divine name, the tefillin contain 21â€¦”
The unique status of tefillin, and the obligation to maintain their sanctity, explains the puzzling position of the Jerusalem Talmud, which requires that one make a blessing upon removing one’s tefillin – although in general one does not make a blessing when ceasing to perform a mitzvah. In this case, the act of removing tefillin before nightfall, when wearing them is prohibited, constitutes a means of protecting their sanctity, and thus is considered a positive mitzvah performance.
This unique level of sanctity distinguishes tefillin from other objects used to perform a mitzvah, and Jewish tradition reflects this by discouraging all but rare individuals, such as the Vilna Gaon, from wearing tefillin for longer than obligated. For this reason, halachah as codified by Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema, 1525 or 1530â€“1572), the leading figure in the Ashkenazic halachic tradition, does not allow minors to wear tefillin. This is in seeming contrast to the Talmudic law – in this case, the consideration of protecting the sanctity of the tefillin overrides the obligation of training one’s children to perform mitzvot. This position is based on the halachic view that when there are countervailing factors, we must recognize our limitations compared to our predecessors in the biblical or Talmudic eras.
This is likewise the rationale behind the Rema’s ruling prohibiting women from wearing tefillin. In contrast to other mitzvot, with regard to tefillin, one who is not obligated may not voluntarily perform the mitzvah. For one who is not obligated to wear tefillin, the prohibition against violating the sanctity of tefillin overrides the option to perform the mitzvah. Far from reflecting a negative attitude toward women – Rema is the authority who rules that women can perform and recite blessings even on those mitzvot from which they are exempt – this instead reflects the heightened status of tefillin, a lesson from which men no less than women can certainly benefit.
Additionally, I would like to emphasize the importance of considering the role of the halachic process in this question. As noted, Rema is the foremost authority for Ashkenazic halachah. Although the halachic system allows for flexibility, it also maintains a strong respect for precedent. When an authority of the stature of Rema rules on an issue, and this ruling has been accepted by subsequent generations, this is something that cannot be overturned lightly.
As recently as the generation preceding ours, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik addressed the question of women wearing tefillin, and affirmed that the halachah follows the position of Rema. The consideration of respect for the halachic process transcends the boundaries of this specific issue, because tradition and precedent form the cornerstones of the halachic system as a whole.
It is the tefillin themselves that have represented, through the millennia, that we are bound heart and mind, as one people, to the Torah and its universal message, and to the integrity of the halachah.
As we say when we don the tefillin, “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, kindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2).